Microbes that control your mind

A mash-up of weird biology and invasion of the body-snatchers:

Last month, three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system reported a discovery about the tomato spotted wilt virus. As its name suggests, this virus infects and damages tomato plants. It’s harmless to people.

To jump from plant to plant, the virus relies on insects known as thrips. A thrip feeds by sticking its oral probe into a plant’s cells and sucking out the contents. If a cell happens to contain the virus, the thrip sucks it up, too.

Scientists already knew that virus-infected tomato plants are more appealing to thrips than uninfected plants. The California researchers discovered something else: Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding, and it licks more plant cells in the process, coating the next tomato plant with the virus.

The virus’s goal (if viruses had goals) isn’t to mess with the thrip. It only manipulates the insect to get to the next plant. By doing so, the virus is taking away some measure of the thrip’s self-determination. It’s like a fleeing bank robber who commandeers and then abandons a bystander’s vehicle. Car theft wasn’t the criminal’s objective, but the bystander is still deprived.

Scientists have also discovered infections that alter behavior in mammals, including humans. For example, the deadly hantavirus, a distant relative of the tomato spotted wilt virus, causes infected rats to become more aggressive. Rabies, meanwhile, renders its victims crazed and unable to swallow. So rabid bats and canines are more likely to bite and spread the saliva-transmitted virus. In fact, rabies may have provided inspiration for legends of vampires and werewolves. Rabies-infected people don’t tend to bite, but they may foam at the mouth and act belligerently in the infection’s terminal stages.

Not all microbes are so obvious about influencing our behavior. If the effect is subtle, it could be hard to tell whether a behavior is coming from the person or from the thing inside them. Cold viruses, for instance, were recently found to make people friendlier, especially during the period before symptoms appear but when the soon-to-be-sick person is highly infectious to others. Evolutionarily, that helps the virus survive, because a gregarious host is a host who’s likely to spread the illness. Advanced syphilis has been reported to sometimes trigger behavioral changes including an exaggerated desire for sex.

The freakiest of the behavior-warping microbes may be Toxoplasma gondii , the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. It can live in cats, rodents, people, livestock and other warm-blooded animals, but it reproduces only inside the feline intestinal tract. So the parasite manipulates infected rats, making them attracted to the scent of cat urine when normally they would be repulsed and terrified by it, and causing them to run toward cats instead of away from them. End of rodent. New beginning for parasite.

In some countries, up to about three-quarters of the human population carries toxoplasmosis, which can be acquired by touching cat feces or contaminated soil or by consuming undercooked meat. Normally, only pregnant women and immune-suppressed people get sick. Others develop lifelong “latent” infections, which are symptom-free. Or so it was once thought.

Research in recent years has identified several personality traits that appear to be associated with latent toxoplasmosis. Infected men are more willing to disregard social norms, for example, and are more jealous and dogmatic. Infected women are more conscientious, warm, easygoing and attentive to others. Both sexes, when infected, are more apprehensive and insecure.

One prominent researcher speculated that toxoplasmosis indirectly kills a million drivers and pedestrians a year worldwide.

Another researcher summed up the personality patterns by saying that infected men are alley cats — in other words, loners and scrappy fighters — and infected women are sex kittens. A third scientist has hypothesized that the high prevalence of toxoplasmosis in certain countries, including France and Brazil, may influence cultural stereotypes about those nations.

via The bacteria (or virus or parasite) made me do it – The Washington Post.

 

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “How is toxoplasmosis spread?

    “Experts estimate that about half of toxoplasmosis infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked infected meat, but you can also get the parasite by eating unwashed contaminated produce, drinking contaminated water, or handling contaminated soil, cat litter, or meat and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
    Toxoplasmosis can’t be transmitted from person to person, with the exception of transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy or from an infected blood transfusion or organ transplant.”

    http://www.babycenter.com/0_toxoplasmosis-during-pregnancy_1461.bc

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “How is toxoplasmosis spread?

    “Experts estimate that about half of toxoplasmosis infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked infected meat, but you can also get the parasite by eating unwashed contaminated produce, drinking contaminated water, or handling contaminated soil, cat litter, or meat and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
    Toxoplasmosis can’t be transmitted from person to person, with the exception of transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy or from an infected blood transfusion or organ transplant.”

    http://www.babycenter.com/0_toxoplasmosis-during-pregnancy_1461.bc

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Toxoplasmosis is the third leading cause of food-related deaths in the United States, behind Salmonella and Listeria infections.”

    http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=274372

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Toxoplasmosis is the third leading cause of food-related deaths in the United States, behind Salmonella and Listeria infections.”

    http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=274372

  • Ben

    wow.

  • Ben

    wow.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Man, this reads like yet another entry in the Journal of Bad Science Journalism.

    Let’s review the second paragraph of the article, in all its scientific glory:

    Granted, with very limited exceptions, there’s no conclusive proof that foreign agents can control us from within. But when you consider the evidence with an open mind, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities.

    Ah, yes, “an open mind”. “Consider the possibilities”. It’s rare for a journalist to so openly telegraph that he’s now truly about to make crap up.

    Consider the scientists involved in these studies. Who are they? The most specific the article ever gets is “three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system” — the university system, mind you. Berkeley? Davis? Irvine? Who knows?

    It goes downhill from there. “Scientists already knew …” “Scientists have also discovered …” “Another researcher summed up …” “A third scientist has hypothesized …” And then things get even more vague! “Cold viruses, for instance, were recently found to …” “Research in recent years has identified …” (really, the research is doing the identifying now?)

    And then, the grande finale:

    Could other widespread microbes be covertly influencing our individual, or even national, characters? No one knows. The field is a blank slate.

    Bravo! Bravo!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Man, this reads like yet another entry in the Journal of Bad Science Journalism.

    Let’s review the second paragraph of the article, in all its scientific glory:

    Granted, with very limited exceptions, there’s no conclusive proof that foreign agents can control us from within. But when you consider the evidence with an open mind, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities.

    Ah, yes, “an open mind”. “Consider the possibilities”. It’s rare for a journalist to so openly telegraph that he’s now truly about to make crap up.

    Consider the scientists involved in these studies. Who are they? The most specific the article ever gets is “three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system” — the university system, mind you. Berkeley? Davis? Irvine? Who knows?

    It goes downhill from there. “Scientists already knew …” “Scientists have also discovered …” “Another researcher summed up …” “A third scientist has hypothesized …” And then things get even more vague! “Cold viruses, for instance, were recently found to …” “Research in recent years has identified …” (really, the research is doing the identifying now?)

    And then, the grande finale:

    Could other widespread microbes be covertly influencing our individual, or even national, characters? No one knows. The field is a blank slate.

    Bravo! Bravo!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    That said, there were a bunch of stories in this vein about “zombie” ants being taken over by a fungus and made to behave weirdly (for the ant, but optimally for the fungus) before dying, at which point the fungus literally busts out of the ant’s head.

    National Geographic had some good (if terrifying photos of this phenomenon.

    And here’s another story I Googled hastily on the topic, from the Christian Science Monitor.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    That said, there were a bunch of stories in this vein about “zombie” ants being taken over by a fungus and made to behave weirdly (for the ant, but optimally for the fungus) before dying, at which point the fungus literally busts out of the ant’s head.

    National Geographic had some good (if terrifying photos of this phenomenon.

    And here’s another story I Googled hastily on the topic, from the Christian Science Monitor.

  • Jimmy Veith

    “Infected men are more willing to disregard social norms, for example, and are more jealous and dogmatic…. . Both sexes, when infected, are more apprehensive and insecure.”

    Thanks for the article. It helps me understand my conservative friends, who are apparently just suffering from a bad bout of toxoplasmosis.

    Peace.

  • Jimmy Veith

    “Infected men are more willing to disregard social norms, for example, and are more jealous and dogmatic…. . Both sexes, when infected, are more apprehensive and insecure.”

    Thanks for the article. It helps me understand my conservative friends, who are apparently just suffering from a bad bout of toxoplasmosis.

    Peace.

  • fws

    Jimmy veith @ 6

    hahahahahha!

  • fws

    Jimmy veith @ 6

    hahahahahha!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Click the links, Todd, and you’ll go to “The Schizophrenia Journal,” a scholarly publication from Oxford, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biology, a respectable scholarly journal.

    And dear brother, if conservatives have toxoplasmosis, does that mean that liberals are thrips infected by the tomato spotted wilt virus? “Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding. . . . the virus is taking away some measure of the thrip’s self-determination.” Then the thrips start voting for a welfare state.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Click the links, Todd, and you’ll go to “The Schizophrenia Journal,” a scholarly publication from Oxford, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biology, a respectable scholarly journal.

    And dear brother, if conservatives have toxoplasmosis, does that mean that liberals are thrips infected by the tomato spotted wilt virus? “Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding. . . . the virus is taking away some measure of the thrip’s self-determination.” Then the thrips start voting for a welfare state.

  • Jimmy Veith

    I’m thinking of a snappy come back. So far, I’ve got nothing. Help!

  • Jimmy Veith

    I’m thinking of a snappy come back. So far, I’ve got nothing. Help!

  • Jimmy Veith

    We must not forget that the tomato would rot in the fields, but for the exploited farm workers who harvest our crops. Viva Cesar Chavez! “Si, se puede!.“ “Si, se puede!.“ “Si, se puede!.“

  • Jimmy Veith

    We must not forget that the tomato would rot in the fields, but for the exploited farm workers who harvest our crops. Viva Cesar Chavez! “Si, se puede!.“ “Si, se puede!.“ “Si, se puede!.“

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith (@8), thanks for pointing that out. I’ve gotten used to ignoring links in most online news stories, since they usually go to useless “topic pages”. I guess the links you mention somewhat mitigate the lousy anonymous/passive writing. Somewhat.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith (@8), thanks for pointing that out. I’ve gotten used to ignoring links in most online news stories, since they usually go to useless “topic pages”. I guess the links you mention somewhat mitigate the lousy anonymous/passive writing. Somewhat.

  • http://www.matthewcochran.net/blog Matt Cochran

    This article sounded freaky at first, but I wonder how much of that is from looking at it from the pathogen’s point of view (a dubious prospect since it doesn’t really have one). For example, pink eye makes a person’s eyes itch and water, leading them to rub their eyes and ultimately spread the bacteria to others. Does this qualify as mind control? The bacteria is clearly influencing our behavior and getting what it “wants.” But somehow, it’ sounds much less like the daunting “mind control” and more like a mundane “symptom” when we’re familiar with the mechanics and never think of the bacteria as having any kind of plan of its own.

  • http://www.matthewcochran.net/blog Matt Cochran

    This article sounded freaky at first, but I wonder how much of that is from looking at it from the pathogen’s point of view (a dubious prospect since it doesn’t really have one). For example, pink eye makes a person’s eyes itch and water, leading them to rub their eyes and ultimately spread the bacteria to others. Does this qualify as mind control? The bacteria is clearly influencing our behavior and getting what it “wants.” But somehow, it’ sounds much less like the daunting “mind control” and more like a mundane “symptom” when we’re familiar with the mechanics and never think of the bacteria as having any kind of plan of its own.

  • fws

    What crossed my mind reading this is the ongoing argument about things moral.

    Rome and the aristotelian scholastics argue for a “natural law” idea of morality that is about seeing God revealing his Image in nature . Lutherans who have bought into this forget that also man’s “natural appetites” or “baser instincts” are not considered “sin” in this schema.

    Then there were the baptistic arguments about free will that we all really buy into, We identify ourselves by our free will and feel sort of threatened by this biological spin on behavior . So we rush to put some sort of religious spin in it. Not necessary.

    Then there is the continuation of all this as to nature/nurture with homosexuality.

    The confessions actually do call Original Sin (which they define as a vicious faith in anything but Christ)a disease.

    Interesting food for thought.

  • fws

    What crossed my mind reading this is the ongoing argument about things moral.

    Rome and the aristotelian scholastics argue for a “natural law” idea of morality that is about seeing God revealing his Image in nature . Lutherans who have bought into this forget that also man’s “natural appetites” or “baser instincts” are not considered “sin” in this schema.

    Then there were the baptistic arguments about free will that we all really buy into, We identify ourselves by our free will and feel sort of threatened by this biological spin on behavior . So we rush to put some sort of religious spin in it. Not necessary.

    Then there is the continuation of all this as to nature/nurture with homosexuality.

    The confessions actually do call Original Sin (which they define as a vicious faith in anything but Christ)a disease.

    Interesting food for thought.

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